Denny Hamlin knew Matt Kenseth would excel at JGR

DOVER, DE - SEPTEMBER 27:  Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Home Depot "Let's Do This" Toyota, looks on from the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 27, 2013 in Dover, Delaware.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

DOVER, DE – SEPTEMBER 27: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Home Depot “Let’s Do This” Toyota, looks on from the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on September 27, 2013 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

DOVER, Del.—If Denny Hamlin were to give Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth a performance review for the first 28 races of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, the verdict would be “Meets Expectations.”

Though Kenseth’s breakout career-best seven-win season may have stunned casual observers, Hamlin wasn’t the least bit surprised at his new teammate’s success.

“You can replay every interview I did before the season, and I said he would win six or seven races, and he’s already at seven looking 10 right in the face at this point,” Hamlin told the NASCAR Wire Service on Thursday during a break from lobbying for March of Dimes programs in Washington, D.C. “He’s just underrated … he’s just not flashy. He just goes out there and does an amazing job.”

Hamlin spent the day visiting United States senators and congressmen on Capitol Hill, helping to urge the passage of the Newborn Screening Saves Lives Reauthorization Act (S. 1417/H.R. 1281). Later that evening, Hamlin received the distinguished “Champion of Babies” award for his work in raising awareness of the March of Dimes’ signature fundraiser “March for Babies.”

Hamlin has endured health issues of his own this year. He suffered a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra in a wreck at Fontana, Calif., in late March, missed four races subsequently and made an early exit from his car at Talladega.

A chronic issue with bulging discs has kept him in pain throughout the season, with little opportunity to heal. Hamlin hopes to use the offseason to recuperate fully and concedes that surgery might be an option.

“I had some treatment done two weeks ago that usually lasts me about a month to a month and a half,” Hamlin said. “Just basically got some shots to relieve pain, and hopefully what it’s going to do is buy me a month and a half of relief to get healthy. The problem with our schedule is that I don’t have enough time at home to rehab and do all the things I need to do to get better, so I need the offseason.

“Now I’ve got some relief. The last two weeks have been really great, as far as pain is concerned, so now I’m hoping this next month and a half—from now until the end of the season—I can spend time doing all the hard regimen stuff that I can do. That way I’ll see, if it’s not relieved by the end of that month-and-a-half term, whether I will need surgery or not.”

More than anything, Hamlin hopes to be at full strength next season and able to give Kenseth, the current series leader, a run for his money.

“Really, I can’t wait until next year to race him competitively,” Hamlin said. “I haven’t been (able to do so) here lately. At the beginning of the year, before all the injury stuff happened, we had some really good racing side-by-side, and we did throughout my entire career.

“We’ve always had awesome races together, and I just kind of want to get back to that.”

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